INTERVIEW WITH Sam Coyle (she/her) - Director of Avocado Toast the series and Hazy Little Thing Sam talks with Heidi Lynch about her sources of inspiration, what she has learned as a filmmaker, and how she likes to collaborate with her cast and crew on set.
Heidi Lynch: Hi Sam.
Sam Coyle: Hi Heidi.
HL: This feels very professional and like important to be talking to you today, which feels funny because I talked to you all the time, but but it's fun too, to veer from like friendship crush to talent crush. And my first question is about Avocado Toast the series obviously. It’s been about five and a half months since we released our baby into the world. So from this vantage point, looking back, what is the one moment either on screen or a part of the process that you feel the most proud of?
SC: I mean, honestly, just the feat itself, like the whole thing in its entirety coming together. I think I feel really proud. But also the friendships and connections that were made. So it was a really great experience to meet new people and create a bond and something that has longevity. So but the project in particular, I mean just the whole thing. I think we all worked our asses off and tirelessly and I still see little snippets on Instagram for a promotion and I'm just like, “Oh, it's so beautiful”. And I'm just really proud of how it all came together.
HL: Yeah. Me too, definitely. Me too. Do you feel like either while you're working on something as a director or after the fact, do you feel like you learn from the characters and do you think there's anything you learned from a character in Avocado Toast?
SC: Yeah, I mean, I tend to learn a lot by reading scripts. So in the beginning process I definitely see a lot of myself in characters or learn something new. I think actually [learned] more from the process of the making of it. But I learned a lot about the vulnerability of sharing your story and seeing what you and Perrie went through to share that and express that, and then connect with other people to bring their experiences into it. So I definitely learned a lot through that process.
HL: Yeah, I think that was one of the most important things to me too. I've been following this photographer named Georgie Wileman for a while and she had this quote I read yesterday where she said that the chance of giving somebody validation to feel seen was the only thing that was giving her purpose during a hard time. And I was like, yeah, that is so interesting, especially in this field where we work in so many different ways, you know, and you sometimes on your projects, you're writing and directing and producing, and sometimes you're just hired and it's a very different beast, which brings me to Hazy Little Thing. We are very fortunate to both have our health and I'm very hashtag grateful, but it was a little soul crushing to release Avocado Toast into the world during a global pandemic. When we just wanted to have a big screening party and celebrate this hard work we'd done. And then we had all these amazing festivals to go to and it turned online and we made the best of it. But you sort of had that double because you also released your first feature film right around the same time. What was, you know, what has been the best online experience with Hazy [Little Thing].
SC: I mean, we sold the film because of the pandemic and I don't think that that would have happened. So that was a huge asset that it was before it was even released. We sold it and for a super-indie, you know. We made this for very little money and it was just a passion project to be able to kind of show my worth as a director was the reason for doing it in a big way and creating art. But yeah, to sell it was a massive plus through Canadian Film Festival set that up. That was our premiere festival. That was really, really great. I had the fortunate experience to be in Calgary actually when it was in the Calgary Film Festival. I was just visiting family in the end of summer. I feel very grateful for that experience. It was a limited audience everybody's wearing masks socially distanced, but with 25 people in the audience, I felt so fulfilled because I heard how people were experiencing the film and it made me so happy. Whereas when you're sitting at home and people are texting you, ‘Oh, cool, nice film’, ‘great film’, ‘loved it, blah, blah, blah’. You don't feel that same connection. You know? And I think I just felt very fortunate that I got to experience that in a minuscule way, not a sold-out cinema. I did detract that question to make it about being in person. But I mean, it was the best thing about online.
HL: Yeah. Oh man. Yeah. And you and Erin [Carter], you wore many hats on that film like Perrie and I did on Avocado Toast. What have you always been good at collaborating under duress? It's just, it's such a wonderful skill. And as a director, it's so interesting because there are directors that I've worked with before who command a room in a very different way, in a way where people are intimidated either by their reputation or by their energy. But what's interesting that I noticed with working with you is that you are so open to collaboration with everybody on the team. And for me personally, anyways, it makes me feel so safe to throw any ideas out, but it also makes me trust you a hundred percent and it makes me follow your lead in such a different way than what I'm used to. So, yeah, I just, have you always been good at collaborating? Is it something you actively need to work at?
SC: No, I think it comes very naturally. I think I actually struggle more in like the dominating and only my idea wins. I just think that everybody has such a unique perspective on the world and if you do trust people, they flourish. So understanding that, and, you know, as I've come up, like I'm still learning so much about the filmmaking process. But I just rely heavily on my collaborators because that's my cinematographer knows more about their field than I do. I have my ideas and then I put them out, listen to theirs. And then it is about that collaboration of merging getting what I want out of what they're suggesting. If it's yes, then go with it. Why wouldn't you want to try to make it better? You know? So I definitely always want to listen for the better idea and if it's mine or if it's somebody else's. But I don't think one way of thinking is the right way. And because the filmmaking process is [collaborative] so you need so many people. Like you definitely have what you want out of it and you have kind of your guideline. And it always goes back to story for me, is this serving the story? And if it's not, then throw it away and if it is, then let's use it and, and build on it.
HL: And so you and I have both entered this industry through acting and then veered into other careers. And I guess from the director working with an actor standpoint some directors that I've worked with before, mostly in theatre, have said that like 90% of the job is casting. For me as an actor, and then learning everything behind the scenes, I just don't think that's true. I mean, you can't, you can't force a connection that's not happening. Yes. But watching you in pre-production and seeing how many relationships you're managing with people, I'm like, well, I don't think it's all casting, but this whole concept of an ‘it’ factor, the ‘it’ factor. Do you know ‘it’ when you see it and what do you think ‘it’ is when an actor has ‘it’?
SC: Yeah, I think, you know, I teach directing at George Brown film program. So I was just doing like an acting workshop with them. And so I was talking through a little bit of this and I call it the ‘it’ factor for me, is essence. What is that actor's essence. And generally you can tell when they first walk in, you know, you really get a sense. And I say like in the casting process, again, just be open to surprises. Maybe it's not the way that you expected it. And if you go in with, it needs to be this way, it's quite limiting and you don't allow for creativity and exploration through somebody else's perspective on it. Like sometimes you hear a line, you know, we've read it so many times and, you know, I was helping you guys story edit and stuff, and it's like, I had those lines in my head. And then when you see a fresh take on that line, that's so exciting, you know. So there's elements of like, just being open to whoever's in the room and letting them like really take on that character and see the new character in a new light. And I think that that's kind of, you know, I feel really strongly about the casting of Jordan. He was one character that I was like, he just has that essence. And, you know, I think we all kind of felt that and wanted to give him more lines and wanted to bolster his character because Alexander Nunez, the actor himself really brought something unique to that character. It was in the world of what we wanted, but he really made it his own and it, it popped and came alive. And you know, now he's a bigger part in season two in a writer. And you know, he really, really shone in that way.
HL: Absolutely. I remember that one day in the office setting where it was so cool, I was just producing that day with my little clipboard in the back, but you just felt the whole room change like you and cam got so excited, you felt play happen. I think that's what's going on. That beautiful thing that happens when you're on a set where it feels like everyone develops a communal consciousness and it's above your head and you're all just like, and Alex was having the most fun and became a genius opening for that episode that you directed. And just so funny. And I'm so grateful because he's become a great collaborator of mine and we're developing another show together. But yeah he is so fun. Okay. So in this industry, we're so validated for our successes and that's what everyone talks about. There's no like publicist for your failures but we learn and grow so much from the crappy parts of it. So I guess I'm curious, is there one failure in your experience that has taught you the most failure with quotations too.
SC: Yeah. I mean, you know, I really, I don't, I have so many answers to the question it's really hard, you know, because I came from an actor background, I put myself through film school and I worked really, really hard on understanding the process, but a lot of my first films are my student films that I invested my serving money into to be able to create and understand the world a little bit better. So I have a ton of failures I have. But I do think it does make you stronger. I really do say if you're, if everybody says good job, you don't learn anything about yourself. We see people like that in powers of privilege and positions of power, who everybody just says yes to and they don't really grow and they don't change and they're not versatile. But you know, I haven't had a lot of success either. So it comes with the thing of that idea of wanting to be validated in the process and being like, am I any good at this? So now things are starting to happen, but yeah, it was many, many years of being like, is this any good and not having an outside perspective. It’s really hard when you're making short films, they play four or five festivals. They're not getting picked up, but it's really hot. It's so oversaturated, there's a massive market. You just really need to believe in the core of your artist and do it for yourself. You know, that's kind of what I've learned throughout that process. Biggest failure. Oh gosh, no, I don't know.
HL: I think that's good. I think that there, you know, yeah, you would just have to learn from them and keep moving forward. You can't fall on them obviously. So I think it's good that they're not top of mind. Yeah.
SC: I will say I've learned from other people's failures. I've like been on a bunch of sets in the learning process. And when I was wanting to become a director, I would see directors kind of in the novice earlier stages do just atrocious things on set and really lose the trust of their cast and crew. And, you know, I'm 18 on some of those things are helping produce, blah, blah, blah. I was like, that's what I don't want to do. And I worked really hard at knowing how to command trust of my cast and crew and, and keep a solid team together and believe in them so that they believe in me. Yeah.
HL: Yeah. Where did you go to film school? I didn't know.
SC: Oh, I didn't go to film school.
HL: Oh, Oh, I understand. Sorry. Yes. You just created your own. And as much as we do go it alone as filmmakers, there are really beautiful and interesting programs around that help. And I know you're in one currently a film lab that I believe is focused on like helping filmmakers get funding.
SC: Yeah. And they actually specialize on female filmmakers getting funding and mostly taking indie female filmmakers and bringing them to the next stage in their career. A lot of times what happens is they'll look at their film and it's a super indy, like mine was made for, you know, very small amount of money. But I had to, because I didn't go through the traditional paths and I didn't have big funders on my side and, you know, coming from film school, blah, blah, blah. So they really vouch and they say this, this woman is a, a true artist and worth investing in, you know, so they have, they have 12 programs in this. It's called Attagurl. It's an Australian started program, but it's an international [program] and I think that was the first time that I felt kind of seen in that way, which was really great. They just loved my script and they loved my past work and saw that, yes, it didn't go to Cannes. It didn't go to Berlin, but they really saw my essence of it as an artist. And I'm trying to kind of help leverage that up to kind of the next stage.
HL: That’s amazing. That is so cool. You and I have had this bizarre synchronicity when we share content with each other that I've really enjoyed. Like, I think I was literally opening the second page of Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney. And you were like, ‘have you read Conversations with Friends?’ And I was like, okay, this is getting weird. And then when I watched,
I May Destroy You. I actually thought that it was like made inside of your brain. And I was like, ‘did Sam direct this?’ I found out yesterday that one of your favourite movies is Biutiful and I it's on my list now to watch, but I was wondering why. I mean, I've only watched the trailer and the cinematography is absolutely beautiful and you can, like, I'm very excited. It's very dark, but it looks incredible. But I was wondering why, like, how would you pitch that to somebody as being a film they should watch? Why do you like it
SC: For me, what resonated was, it really looks at the human condition. It looks at somebody who's in a lower income situation and just trying their hardest to survive. And these terrible things are happening around them in just their effort in their effort to kind of get to the next stage and support their family and, you know, just and it, and at its core, it's a father daughter relationship. And the big themes that it talks about is this life and death. And I'm quite fascinated by death and not in a creepy way, but it's an experience that everybody goes through. And I think as a society, we don't have a handle or a process on that. It causes a lot of grief. Obviously you're losing a life, but it's something that's inevitable and, and we don't understand it or don't have tools to better weave it into our life. So it's just layered. It's so complex. I mean, every time I watch it, I just weep because it really hits a chord with me.
HL: Okay. Sold. I'm going to watch it. I, okay. You know that I have been wrapping my head around marketing and audiences and all of this stuff. I'm curious. How much of that do you take into account when you're creating? Do you think about what the audience wants? Do you cater to that? Do you think that's a filmmaker's responsibility?
SC: Yeah. Audience is a big part of filmmaking because that is who's going to pay to go see your product. You're making it for other people. I think, you know, we really need to make the stories as personal as possible. But so personal that they become universal. And you want to touch other people's lives and you should be thinking about, you know, you can't think about every aspect of, ‘Oh, I can't wait for somebody to see this cause they're going to be changed’, but I really do consider audience and think even with Hazy [Little Thing]. I ask questions a lot in my work of being so that people kind of have something in their set with it or think about it later, maybe, but that one was really wanting people to reach out to people that they haven't spoken to in awhile or that they just assume is okay, because social media tells them they're okay. But like really connect with people, you know? And so I was thinking about the audience in that. I was hoping to kind of inspire people, being like, ‘Oh , I hadn't spoken to that person in a while. Maybe I'll call them and check in. Yeah. And I think it's quite selfish not to think about the audience. I don't think you can. I don't think it's great art when you cater things to change your art because of you want to apply to everybody. There's certain art out there that does that, but I don't think that you should waiver in the story that you want to tell, be for a certain type of audience, but you need to know the audience that you're talking to.
HL: Yeah. Your niche audience. Yeah. Okay. My last little question is about music. You and I had such a fun time going through the music for Avocado Toast. You can find our Spotify playlist on Spotify. You just seem like you are such a musically driven, focused person, even in like scene transitions. You were very connected to how the audio was going to support the story. And you brought a lot of musicians to the table, your partner's a musician. Like what is it about music that you think heightens a scripted story so much?
SC: I think it's just another added layer that's in kind of unspoken story, you know, unspoken. I don't know if that's the right way of phrasing that, but it it's almost like a verbal non-verbal. Yeah. It's own narrative layer that you add onto it. And to be a hundred percent honest, I'm actually so musically inclined or not inclined. I I'm tone deaf. I can't play an instrument. There's a lot of that kind of stuff, but I feel a lot through music. So that kind of becomes my intuition. How does this song make me feel? You know, and you put yourself in the mind of either the moment of the scene or the character and a lot of that stuff, but it is strictly based on feeling for me so that the, the kind of score and we worked with amazing composers as well who I think really highlight and embody, you know, it's funny - those conversations, because I talk about feeling when I talked to a composer and hope that they get it and they normally do.
HL: Yeah. Great. Well, thank you so much for talking to me today.
SC: Thanks Heidi.